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A white wine beats the reds in a competition to name Virginia’s best

Horton Vineyards’ 2016 petit manseng is poured at the Virginia Governor’s Cup gala, where it won top honors. (Charlottesville Wine and Country)

Virginia’s wine community gathered Tuesday in Richmond for an annual celebration that turned emotional when Gov. Ralph Northam awarded the Governor’s Cup, the industry’s highest accolade, to Horton Vineyards for its 2016 petit manseng.

Horton Vineyards’ win was a fitting and perhaps even defiant exclamation point to a very difficult 2018, which saw the Old Dominion’s rainiest and most difficult growing season in memory and the death, in June, of Dennis Horton, the iconoclastic pioneer vintner who demonstrated Virginia’s winemaking potential with his 1993 viognier.

The Horton petit manseng triumphed over more than 500 wines entered by more than 100 wineries and evaluated by several panels of judges. Gold medals were awarded to 68 wines, demonstrating the rise in quality statewide. The top 12 scoring wines become the Governor’s Case, serving as ambassadors of Virginia to media and trade around the world, while the top scorer wins the Governor’s Cup.

The man who turned underdog grapes into Virginia’s star wines

While celebrating the past, Horton’s win also pointed dramatically to Virginia wine’s future. Petit manseng, an aromatic white grape from southwestern France, was first planted commercially in Virginia in 1999, by Dennis Horton and Jennifer McCloud of Chrysalis Vineyards, using cuttings from Virginia Tech’s experimental vineyard near Winchester. Winemakers struggled initially in determining a style for the wine, unable to decide if its flowery, tropical fruit flavors were best suited for a sweet dessert wine or a drier version. Today, petit manseng generates more excitement than viognier; this year, at least, it beat Virginia’s reds, which traditionally dominate the competition.

Shannon Horton, Dennis’s daughter, told me she and her mother, Sharon, decided in summer 2016 to revamp the petit manseng from a slightly sweet, off-dry version to a fully dry wine. “We had tasted some dry PMs and were impressed with their complexity,” she said. “We wanted to embrace the acidity and make a complex wine.” That year’s wine was fermented by their long-term winemaker, Mike Heny. After Heny left in early 2018, the wine was finished by his successor, Andy Reagan, who blended in 5 percent each of rkatsiteli, another unusual grape Dennis Horton pioneered in Virginia, and early-picked viognier. It was a true team effort, symbolic of the transition at one of Virginia’s iconic wineries.

One of those dry versions of petit manseng that excited Shannon and Sharon Horton was made by Michael Shaps, and that brings us to another story of this year’s Governor’s Cup competition. Of the 68 wines that won gold medals, 22 were made by Shaps, either under his own label or others who contract with his Virginia Wineworks, the state’s first custom crush facility, established in 2007. Five were included in the Governor’s Case.

Shaps raised eyebrows around the state a few years ago with his dry petit manseng from Honnah Lea vineyard north of Keswick, released under his own label. And he has increasingly dominated the Governor’s Cup gold medal rankings with his own wines and those of his clients. Producing nearly 1 of every 3 gold medal wines should solidify Shaps’s reputation as Virginia’s premier winemaker. Others produce delicious wines to help raise Virginia’s reputation, but no one produces as many top-notch wines as Michael Shaps.

“I feel like I’m helping people make good wine,” Shaps told me. “That’s why I went into contract winemaking, so people wouldn’t just be making wine in their basements without guidance from someone who knows the ropes. I hope I’m helping to raise the bar for the entire state.”

And of course, as much as we look to the future and an exciting and original white wine, and as much as we acknowledge the commonwealth’s most prolific medal-winning winemaker, this wouldn’t be Virginia if we couldn’t wrap the story back around into history. Virginia Wineworks is located in the old facility of Montdomaine Winery, one of the state’s oldest, south of Charlottesville. The Montdomaine trademark was owned in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Dennis Horton.

Shannon Horton reminded me when we spoke a few days before the Governor’s Cup ceremony that her father had won the top award once before, in 1993 for his 1990 Montdomaine Cabernet Sauvignon. Later that year, he would harvest the viognier that would win acclaim and tell the world that Virginia could produce top-notch wine.

“I found a bottle of the 1990 that Dad left in the cellar,” Shannon told me. I asked if she planned to take it to Richmond for the awards ceremony.

“You bet . . . I am!” she said, and then let out a guffaw. “Now, isn’t that a Dennis Horton answer?” After a slight pause, she added, “I think we did Dad proud.”

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